Saturday, March 20, 2004

Scientists and Poets

i wanted to throw this in yesterday, in the faint hope of having some deep thought to sign off for the weekend with:

I was reading an article yesterday about the perceived schism between poetry and science. The author went into some depth to argue that the disconnect was not as deep as one may think: some examples that he cited were Goethe, Shelley, and Byron.

He also discussed in some length Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and one line caught my eye:

The basic lesson Frankenstein can teach us is this: science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it.

It struck me that this fairly common meme confuses to a degree basic science and "applied" science or engineering. Scientists, at the most basic level, tell us what is, as well as how. In their description of the (physical) world, they are as much helpless prisoners of a Platonic reality (quantum physics, relativaity, what have you) as artists are bound by our own humanness. Humanity permeates all that we do, including science, and it is the evil within us that makes scientific tools dangerous, as dangerous as the kinds of powerful rhetoric that have killed as many people (if not more) than the atom bomb. We don't blame Karl Marx for the evils of communism, or the writers of the Bible for the Crusades; why is it so easy to blame the scientists ?

Another poet said it well:

The evil that men do lives after them;The good is oft interred with their bones.

To end on a more cheery note, let it not be said that mathematicians lack a poetic streak. Below I reproduce in full the famous poem by Soddy that answers the question: when can 4 circles be made to mutually touch each other ?

The Kiss Precise
by Frederick Soddy

For pairs of lips to kiss maybe
Involves no trigonometry.
'Tis not so when four circles kiss
Each one the other three.
To bring this off the four must be
As three in one or one in three.
If one in three, beyond a doubt
Each gets three kisses from without.
If three in one, then is that one
Thrice kissed internally.

Four circles to the kissing come.
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance form the center.

Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There's now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend's a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of the squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.

To spy out spherical affairs
An oscular surveyor
Might find the task laborious,
The sphere is much the gayer,
And now besides the pair of pairs
A fifth sphere in the kissing shares.
Yet, signs and zero as before,
For each to kiss the other four
The square of the sum of all five bends
Is thrice the sum of their squares.

In Nature, June 20, 1936

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